Before kickoff, the answer to that frequently asked question was: Well, they won the Big East.
Going up against the No. 3 Gators from the SEC, many “experts” thought No. 21 Louisville didn’t have much else going for it and were only slightly more deserving of a BCS berth than the much-maligned Northern Illinois Huskies.
Unlike the Huskies, the Cardinals showed up at the Allstate Sugar Bowl and shocked the Gators with a 33-23 win, because they have a coach and a quarterback who are every bit as good as many of their SEC counterparts. And in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, they were better.
Louisville never trailed, taking control of the game with a interception return for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, and while the defense was all over Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, the game belonged to Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and coach Charlie Strong.
Bridgewater completed 20 of 32 pass attempts and threw for 266 yards – the most passing yards allowed by the Gators defense since last season. It’s a good thing, too, because the Cardinals didn’t even come close to breaking 100 yards rushing.
Bridgewater, the game’s MVP, put on one of the strongest, most poised bowl performances of any quarterback this bowl season, but he had help, from his teammates and from his coach.
In an offseason in which coaches played Musical Clipboards, Strong’s commitment to Louisville is an anomaly. One of the hottest coaching prospects in the country, he could’ve been in the mix for a number of jobs, but he chose to stay at Louisville, use his leverage for better deals for himself and his staff, and lead the program to the biggest BCS bowl upset in history.
On the field after the game, even Bridgewater said he thought Strong would be gone after this season. If he’d jumped to another program, would the Cardinals have had the same success against the Gators?
Perhaps – or perhaps they would’ve shown up looking unprepared and overmatched. Nearly every other bowl-bound school undergoing a coaching transition lost its bowl game. Western Kentucky, North Carolina State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Northern Illinois had seasons of varying success and either fired their coaches or lost them to other programs, and all lost their bowl games under new or interim coaches.
Maybe Bridgewater is good enough that he could’ve carried the team if Strong had, as expected, taken a job at a “better” school. Then again, Florida was No. 3 heading into the bowl game and Louisville beat them soundly. How much better does it get?
For the Cardinals, with at least at least one more season with Bridgewater and Strong, they’ll have a chance to find out.